It was only a matter of time before the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) set himself up as a university Professor. After all, where else would it be so ordinary to insist on being called ‘the Doctor’ at every occasion? It won’t come as a shock to you either that there are quite a few clever clogs at the university, yet one of the most fiercely intelligent people isn’t pouring over books in the library. No - she’s frying chips in the canteen. Unsurprisingly, things are about to change quite a bit for her. Enter Bill (Pearl Mackie), the Doctor’s new companion. Doctor Who’s season 10 premiere is called The Pilot and it’s a rather tongue-in-cheek title considering it’s a grounded introduction to the new companion.
Getting noticed in his lectures for grinning rather than frowning when she doesn’t understand something, Bill is set up as a curious sci-fi fan who ends up being a match for the Doctor in unexpected ways. Chatting to him in his office, the introductory scene where he rapidly becomes her personal tutor and enrols her in the university as a physics student whirls by a little too fast. Before this point there’s no hint that she’s a physics genius, so you’re left wondering whether he’s setting an impossibly high, deviously mean standard, or if you’ve completely missed something. It turns out to be the latter, only revealed when you see Bill’s eye-wateringly high test results. It would have been nice to have taken this initial getting-to-know you montage a little slower, but luckily the remainder of the episode tells us everything we need to know about Bill.
Bill isn’t a wide-eyed wonder kind of girl, nor is she a cynic. Pearl Mackie’s portrayal occasionally jumps between emotions too quickly - one moment she’s pleading, the next crying - yet her sense of wonder never gets too twee. Sure, she does the normal spin-around-in-the-TARDIS moment like every single companion ever, but she also quickly get back to the basics without it trying too hard by asking where the loo is. Her reactions to the Doctor’s quips aren’t too overstated and don’t veer into whimsy territory, meaning she thankfully doesn’t come across as a caricature. This fits Bill’s character perfectly, as she’s more self-conscious than previous companions. Mackie’s doesn’t play her knowledge of science-fiction too over-the-top either; it comes across as more offhanded so when she suggests an odd puddle is an alien, it’s doesn’t come across as a ‘look how quirky I am’ line. Hopefully this indicates that later on in the series she’ll be an equal match (if not an instigator) for the Doctor’s thirst for discovery.
The heart of the episode is a kind of borderline-stalkerish love story (of sorts), telling the tale of shapeshifting spaceship fuel which latches onto Bill’s crush, Heather. And by ‘latches onto’, I mean drowns and then possesses, using Heather’s last conscious thought - to take Bill with her wherever she goes - as a driving purpose. Hunting down Bill across the galaxy by turning into water to get past almost every obstacle, the Doctor has to take his new companion and jump to various different places to outrun the alien. The mistake he makes is to jump to somewhere truly terrifying. Somewhere that strikes terror into Nardole’s (Matt Lucas, who continues in his role as the deceased River Song’s loyal cyborg from 2016’s Christmas Special) heart, and might incidentally kill the alien. Where could that be, I hear you ask? Answer: The Time War. Yeah. That one. With all the death and fighting between the Daleks and the Time Lords, the place that made the War Doctor become one of the most feared creatures in the galaxy, the place that we’re taught is absolutely taboo for all the atrocities it was home to. The Doctor decides to nip there on the off chance a stray Daleks might put an end to one rather desperate alien.
Insert exasperated sigh here. The actual location - inside a Dalek ship, by the looks of it - is full of sparks and explosions, but there’s no screaming from the war going on outside (just yelping from Nardole and a glimpse of some Movellans getting thrown about in a nod to the classic series), and no terror on the Doctor’s behalf. If anyone else were to take a trip to the time when they had to do things they’d rather not acknowledge, you’d expect them to be a bit jumpy at least. Not this time. An oversight at best, and just pure laziness at absolute worst (come on, at least make the war the place the Doctor only goes to as a last resort), its inclusion comes as a surprise.
For all this frustration, however, one line redeems some of the ill-advised trip to the devastating war. After Bill says goodbye to the watery alien (an emotional scene almost reduced to a joke by an ill-timed remark from Nardole), who takes on the form of Heather, the Doctor fails to notice the tears falling down her cheeks. Nardole blurts out a surprisingly profound line that the Doctor “never notices the tears”, to which Bill replies “I don’t think they’re my tears”. Cue lump in throat.
Doing a decent job of introducing a new companion, even if the alien left a bit to be desired and the choice of location near the end seems unwise, The Pilot lays enough groundwork for some decent stories in season 10. Including Nardole gets the action underway quickly (basically because he becomes a dogsbody), meaning Mackie isn’t confined to being purely inquisitive in an ‘oh golly Doctor’ kind of way (which, to be honest, is the dreariest bit of most new companion). As for that line about tears - phwoar. Talk about giving an alien that could be sipped up with a straw some unexpected emotional depth.